Gaetano Donizetti’s opera-comique, La fille du régiment (offered up in English as “The Daughter of the Regiment”), received the first of four performances on Saturday evening, May 2. It is Pittsburgh Opera’s last production of the season, and last night’s presentation was the first time the company has revived the work since 1986. In many respects, it was one of the most delightful events of the season, and was enjoyed immensely by a large audience. Unfortunately, “large” is applicable to a crowd filling about two-thirds of the vast Benedum Center’s seats. More should have been there, but the audience decidedly made up in enthusiasm what it lacked in numbers.
The Italian composer set the French libretto (by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Jean-François Bayard) to music when he was living in Paris in the late 1830s, and the work received its first performance there early in 1840. It was by no means a success with its first audience and was panned by the critics. It reached the United States three years later, and became a popular vehicle for the next couple of decades, since America at that time was listening to sopranos such as Jenny Lind and Adelina Patti, to name just two of the legendary songbirds who enjoyed great success as the “daughter,” Marie. But the work for the most part was neglected unless a Marcella Sembrich, Luisa Tetrazzini, Frieda Hempel, Joan Sutherland or Beverly Sills happened to be treading the operatic boards at the time. Indeed, it appears that our current century is the opera’s heyday, with nearly thirty productions of the work having occurred in over twenty cities worldwide since 2012 alone.
The story is simple and presented in two acts. The first finds battles raging (offstage) in the Tyrols, with the Marquise of Berkenfeld traveling through the area trying to reach Austria, frightened and frequently in need of smelling salts, which are faithfully waved under her swooning nose by her devoted steward, Hortensius. A chorus of villagers express their fears that the combatants are simply feigning retreat, adding much to the agitation of the poor Marquise. As the troops move away, great is the crowd’s relief. Sergeant Sulpice of the Twenty-First Regiment of the French army suddenly arrives on the scene and assures everyone that his Regiment will restore order. Marie, the vivandière (canteen girl) of the Regiment, and tomboy to the core, enters, and Sulpice, though happy to see her, is more concerned with questions regarding a young man she is rumored to be secretly meeting. She sings affectionately of Tonio, a Tyrolean peasant. Tonio is brought in as a prisoner, because he has been seen lurking near the camp. Marie saves him from the soldiers, who want to shoot him as a spy, by explaining that he saved her life when she nearly fell while mountain climbing. Tonio, now toasted as a hero, pledges allegiance to France, and Marie is encouraged to sing the “Regimental” song. Sulpice then leads the soldiers away, taking Tonio with them, but he runs back to avow his love to Marie. She warns that he must win the approval of her “fathers,” the soldiers of the Regiment, who found her on a battlefield as an abandoned baby and adopted her as their own to raise. Sulpice returns, surprising the young lovers, who run off. The Marquise re-enters the scene with Hortensius. Although soldiers top the long list of her fears, the kindly, jovial Sulpice calms her, and she explains that she and the faithful Hortensius are trying to return to her castle, and she asks for the safe conduct of an escort. Hearing her name, Berkenfeld, Sulpice instantly recognizes it from a letter found with the infant Marie years earlier. It quickly unfolds that Marie is the Marquise’s long-lost “niece.” Marie returns and is surprised to be introduced to her aunt. The Marquise insists that Marie accompany her back to her castle so that she may be taught to be a “proper” lady. Marie sadly bids farewell to her beloved Regiment just as Tonio enters to announce that he has enlisted in their ranks. In proclaiming his love for Marie, he horrifies the soldiers, but they finally agree to his pleading for her hand, and warn that she is about to leave forever with her aunt. A splendid choral ends the act, as Marie leaves with the Marquise and Tonio is left behind in frustrated despair.
Act Two begins a couple of months later, with Marie living none too happily in the Marquise’s castle. In a conversation with the visiting Sulpice, the Marquise tells of how she has tried to soften Marie’s “military manners,” and make her a lady of refinement and fashion, suitable for marriage to her nephew, the Duke of Krakenthorp. Marie has reluctantly agreed to the marriage and Sulpice is asked to reassure and encourage her to find happiness with her new lot in life. In the original libretto, Marie enters and is asked to practice her newly acquired hobby of piano lessons, but as staged in this production, ballet and singing lessons are added with truly hilarious results. Marie still prefers martial music and with Sulpice’s encouragement sings the “Regimental” song. Left alone, Marie sings that she is nearly reconciled to her fate, but in the distance hears military strains, and is overjoyed by the arrival of the Regiment, with Tonio, now an officer. The soldiers express their joy at seeing Marie, and she and Tonio are happily reunited. The Marquise enters, horrified to see soldiers. Tonio asks for Marie’s hand, explaining that he has risked his life for her by enlisting in the ranks, but she dismisses him as an unworthy bumpkin. Tonio and Marie leave separately, and the Marquise confesses the truth to Sulpice: Marie is not her niece – she is her own illegitimate daughter. Moved by her tale of being in love with an officer killed in battle before they could marry, Sulfice promises to persuade Marie to forget Tonio and end her mother’s years of torment by proxy in marrying the “respectable” Duke. The Duchess (a spoken role in the original libretto) and her nephew, the Duke, arrive with other guests and Marie enters with Sulpice, who has broken the news that the Marquise is her mother. Marie, overwhelmed by the astonishing revelation, sympathetically embraces her mother, and decides she must marry the Duke. But just as she is about to sign a marriage “contract,” the soldiers of the Regiment burst in to rescue her from her fate, and announce to the horror of the gathering of nobility that Marie was their canteen girl. The Duchess is indignantly appalled, but the other guests are moved deeply when Marie sings of her debt to the soldiers. The Marquise’s heart melts, she boldly announces to all that she is Marie’s mother, and gives her consent to Marie and Tonio. The opera comes to an end with rejoicing by all.
Antony Walker did admirable work with the orchestra. As has been noted before, this conductor rarely fails to reveal new skill with each new work he undertakes. Last night was no exception to this rule. The orchestra in this piece is too often required to sit in silence, during overly long stretches of spoken dialogue, but the overture was finely rendered, and throughout the conductor and instrumentalists were in unison, lightly underlining the singing or surging to increase its powerful climaxes. There was a slight timidity in the tympani, which, considering the theme of the opera, came as a bit of a disappointment, but the remaining performances hopefully will correct this slight but noticeable flaw. Chorus Master Mark Trawka again showed how adept he is in keeping a large chorus in time and tune – and he has quite a sizeable group of singers to work with in this opera. What was especially impressive was the fact that quite frequently the English text was discernible.
The production was sumptuously costumed and, for the most part, well staged. The scenic effects were slightly startling in the first act, with doorways opening from a backdrop of mountains and trees, and the chorus toted the same accessories that have been seen in Otello, Carmen and other works. The second act was nicely framed, and there were subtle lighting effects that added much to the mood of the piece and actually accentuated the nature of the characters in places.
Of the singers, natural inclination leads us first to Lisette Oropesa, the silvery-voiced Marie, a world-renowned young soprano who already has over 100 performances with the Metropolitan Opera under her belt, and who last night presented more than adequate proof of her well-earned reputation. Lithe, lovely and agile, she was a delight throughout – vocally, visually, and histrionically. In addition to a remarkable voice of thrilling loveliness, she possesses outstanding talent as a comedienne. In the ballet lesson of Act Two, decked out in a flowing, billowy ballerina costume – and the combat boots she wore in Act One – her achievements were on a par with Lucille Ball’s attempt at learning the classical art of dance in the “I Love Lucy” episode we’ve all seen in reruns fifty times or more. In the pretty arias and ensemble numbers alike, her astonishing flights of coloratura were charmingly delightful. For a brief moment at the beginning of Act One, it seemed as if she might have a slight bit of difficulty in smoothly gliding down from her more florid flights, but this quickly disappeared, and she went on to create quite a sensation which was tumultuously approved by the audience at every opportunity.
Tenor Lawrence Brownlee, the Tonio of the cast, made his Pittsburgh Opera debut. He, too, has sung at the Metropolitan Opera and other major venues the world over, and possesses a lyric tenor voice ideally suited to the role he assumed last night. He was equal to the demands of the famous aria, “Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête!” – which has been called the “Mount Everest” for tenors. It calls for nine high Cs comparatively early in the opera, giving the singer little time to “warm up” the voice. Actually, the English translation provides a couple of extra syllables that give the tenor the opportunity to shoot for one or two more, and Brownlee pounced on the chance quite successfully. His singing is not especially powerful in volume, and he by no means presents a romantic illusion. He is a handsome man, but vertically challenged and horizontally gifted, and the fact that his not particularly tall soprano stood several inches over him added a comic element to a few scenes where it was decidedly out of place and taxed the audience’s imagination to the point where a stifled comment or two amused others within hearing range. These trivialities aside, he aroused a burst of prolonged and enthusiastic applause such as is rarely to be heard from a Pittsburgh audience.
Perhaps the most profound impression of the evening was made by Joyce Castle, in the mostly spoken role of the Marquise of Berkenfeld. This remarkable mezzo-soprano, who also made her Pittsburgh Opera debut, is slightly more than half-past 70 years of age, but possesses a strong stage voice that reverberated through the large theater, and in her sung passages, her voice was hauntingly reminiscent of the late, great Regina Resnik. In appearance, she was the image of an 1840s tintype come to life in glorious Technicolor. She acted the part to perfection and was the center of attention each time she appeared on the stage. The veteran singer’s repertory encompasses over 100 roles from Sondheim to Wagner, and at this stage in her career, when she is assuming roles such as Mme. Armfeldt in “A Little Night Music,” it is to be hoped that she has many more years to thrill audiences the way she did last night. At the final calls of the evening, she seemed slightly startled by the roar which rose from the crowd for her. She shouldn’t have been.
Kevin Glavin, who made much of the basso-buffo role of Sulpice, is no stranger to Pittsburgh Opera audiences, as he is a native of the city and has appeared with the company 40 times over the last 30 years. He added humor and a sympathetic touch to the part, and sang and acted it quite well indeed. Phillip Gay, who seems to be in every opera presented in Pittsburgh of late, stepped forward once again as Hortensius, and gave what was probably his finest performance of the season now ending. He did not stray from the picture, as he has tended to do on other occasions, and seems to be honing his art in this direction with fine results. The immensely talented Dimitrie Lazich was immensely under-utilized in the small part of the Corporal, but, as always, the little he had to sing was sung exceptionally well, and his presence is always commanding and dignified.Jeffrey Link sang a few lines as a “Peasant” quite well.
It is tempting to pass over Anna Singer as the Duchess of Krakenthorp with the mere comment that she was also in the cast. But respect for the musical intelligence of Pittsburgh operagoers will not allow for passing comment. In the original libretto, the role consists of a few spoken lines, and last night it should have stayed that way. Instead, for the simple reason that she is a locally known radio announcer who can carry a tune (or possibly due to the “musical politics” that have run rife in this city for at least 35 years), the role was allowed to be presented by her as a second-class vaudeville spectacle, in which she was allowed to be showcased in an interpolated embarrassing embarrassment of riches. She referred to her difficult journey to the castle that involved tunnels and bridges; this got a laugh, but when she proceeded to make reference to rumors of an invention by Marconi that would carry music to the masses, some parts of the audience began to groan. The absolute limit came when she launched into a bastardized version of Noël Coward’s “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington,” and the inartistic end of the line in poor taste had been reached. It is to be hoped that this novelty was an opening night bit of fun for her friends and admirers that will not be repeated, for it took much away from all Ms. Singer has done to promote classical music in this city, not to mention the opera itself.
These few cringe-worthy minutes, however, do nothing to give cause to not highly recommend patronage of the remaining performances, which will take place on May 5, 8 and 10 (with a student performed matinee on May 7).
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Opera for two complimentary press tickets.
“The Artistic Team” for “Daughter of the Regiment” –
Antony Walker, Conductor; Seán Curran, Stage Director & Choreographer; James Schuette, Set & Costume Designer; Cindy Limauro, Lighting Designer; James Geier, Wig & Make-up Designer;Glenn Lewis, Assistant Conductor; Mark Trawka, Chorus Master; James Lesniak, Associate Coach/Pianist; Jennifer Williams, Assistant Director; Michele de la Reza, Assistant Choreographer;Teri Jo Fuson, Stage Manager.
(Dancers Provided by Attack Theatre)
Performance Date: Saturday, May 2, 2015